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Down Goes Brown: Five times an arbitrator made NHL history

Sean McIndoe
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Scott Stevens with the Blues in 1991. (Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Down Goes Brown: Five times an arbitrator made NHL history

Sean McIndoe
By:

NHL arbitrators aren't getting much work this summer, but that wasn't always the case. Here's a look back on five times in NHL history that an arbitrator got the chance to bask in the spotlight.

It's been a rough few weeks for NHL arbitrators. While 25 contract cases had been scheduled for hearings, only Tyson Barrie made it to a hearing, and that was resolved before a ruling was issued, meaning the league's arbitrators didn't get to render a single decision. And all that comes on the heels of news that James Oldham, the neutral arbitrator who ruled on the Dennis Wideman case, had been dismissed by the league.

But during these dark days for the league's proud arbitrating fraternity, it's worth remembering that times weren't always so tough. The NHL has a long history of arbitrators making headlines, on cases involving everything from contract signings to disputed trades and beyond.

Here's a look back on five times in NHL history that an arbitrator got the chance to bask in the spotlight.

THE RFA FILES

The case: Today's fans are familiar with the concept of restricted free agency. Certain players, typically those in the early stages of their pro careers, can find themselves eligible to sign offer sheets with other teams. If the offer isn't matched, compensation is paid in the form of draft picks, based on a league-mandated scale. But the offer is matched, pretty much every time, which is why they're rarely even attempted anymore and restricted free agency usually ends up being a dud.

Years ago, things were a lot more interesting.

Back before the current system came into place, the league went through a period where RFA signings were still subject to compensation. But instead of a list of draft picks and dollar signs, the compensation took the form of actual players. Each team – the one that had signed the RFA, and the one that was losing him – would have to submit what they thought was a fair trade to an arbitrator. And that arbitrator would have to pick one offer or the other, with no room to split the difference or compromise.

It was amazingly entertaining, and the strategy involved was fascinating. If you were signing another team's RFA, would you lowball on your compensation to try to get the best possible value? Or did you make a generous offer just to make sure you weren't burned? And if you were losing a player, did you retaliate by asking for someone even better in return?

OK, that last one sounds kind of over the top. But the New Jersey Devils tried it anyway, it worked, and everyone lost their minds.

The ruling: The player compensation system was used in all sorts of RFA signings over the years (I'm still not over the Maple Leafs losing Peter Zezel for Mike Craig). But the most famous case came in the early 90s, when the St. Louis Blues went on a spending spree targeting other teams RFAs. In 1990, they signed Scott Stevens away from the Capitals and named him team captain. And then in 1991, they went after Brendan Shanahan of the Devils.

Those were two big moves – Shanahan was a 22-year-old power forward who looked like a future star, and Stevens was already considered one of the best defensemen in the league. Put them together, along with established stars like Brett Hull and Adam Oates, and you had the core of a potential Cup champion. But as it turned out, it was the "put them together" part that ended up being a problem.

When it came time for an arbitrator to rule on Shanahan's compensation, the Blues made a generous offer: Curtis Joseph and Rod Brind'Amour, two very good young players who'd go on to long and successful NHL careers. But the Devils shocked everyone by swinging for the fences and asking for Stevens. That seemed crazy – Shanahan was good, but Stevens was far better. But arbitrator Edward Houston stunned the hockey world by siding with the Devils, sending Stevens to New Jersey.

Understandably, the Blues flipped out. Stevens was also furious, initially refusing to report to the Devils before finally backing down shortly before the season started. The deal was a lopsided steal for New Jersey, one that helped set the stage for three Stanley Cups to come. To make matters worse, the Blues even tried to get Stevens back in 1994, and ended up getting nailed for tampering because of it.

To this day, Stevens-for-Shanahan stands as one of the biggest trades in NHL history. And thanks to an arbitrator, it was made against the will of one of the teams involved.

DEFINE "AVERAGE"

The case: Back in 1992, the NHL and NHLPA had a clause in the CBA that allowed certain veteran players to become free agents if their salary fell below the league average. But there was a problem – the two sides hadn't bothered to actually specify what "average" meant.

The players' association wanted to use a weighted average of the top 20 players on each team, while the league wanted to count everybody without prorating to total games played. That ended up being a big gap, with the NHLPA claiming that the average salary was $380,000, while the league claimed it was closer to $235,000. That left players that fell between those two numbers unsure if they were eligible to sign free agency deals or not.

The ruling: While it wasn't the most famous arbitration case of the 1992 offseason – more on that in a minute – the ruling by Theodore St. Antoine ended up being an important one. In August, he released his decision, essentially siding with the players and setting the official average salary at the high end of the scale and freeing several players to sign with the team of their choosing.

THE SMUDGE

The case: We mentioned this one briefly in last week's post, but it's weird enough to deserve a deeper dive. Back in 1997, the Flyers made an attempt to lure RFA Chris Gratton away from Tampa with a $16.5 million offer sheet. Gratton signed the offer, which in theory meant the Lightning had seven days to either match or let him go to Philadelphia in exchange for draft picks. What they weren't allowed to do, as per the RFA rules which remain in place to this day, was trade Gratton to some other team once he'd signed his offer sheet.

But that didn't stop Lightning GM Phil Esposito, who went ahead and traded Gratton to the Blackhawks anyway. Esposito claimed that the fax he'd received from the Flyers detailing Gratton's offer sheet had been smudged and therefore shouldn't count. There was also some question as to exactly when the trade had been completed, and whether the Lightning and Hawks had beat the clock, so the whole mess went to an arbitrator.

The ruling: Arbitrator John Sands sided with the Flyers, declaring the offer sheet valid and wiping out the trade with the Hawks. Tampa and Chicago appealed to Gary Bettman, but the ruling was upheld.

The Lightning ultimately accepted the draft pick compensation, then traded all the picks right back to Philadelphia for Mikael Renberg and Karl Dykhuis. Neither deal worked out, and the Lightning and Flyers basically pulled off a do-over a year later, flipping Renberg for Gratton (and forcing Philadelphia to eat a massive $9-million signing bonus).

GIVING THE DEVILS THEIR DUE

The case: One thing that stands out when you comb through the history of NHL arbitration: The New Jersey Devils show up kind of a lot. We've already had them make one appearance in this post, and our list isn't even going to include the Ilya Kovalchuk case from a few years ago, in which an arbitrator struck down the ridiculously front-loaded $102-million contract they tried to give the Russian sniper.

But as much as we'd like to give other teams a chance, we will include the Mike Van Ryn case from 2000. That one saw Van Ryn attempt to declare free agency two years after being drafted by (but never signing with) New Jersey. The Devils argued that he should be considered a defected player instead, in a dispute that would have a far-reaching impact on college prospects.

The ruling: In a decision that was viewed as a surprise at the time, arbitrator Lawrence Holden sided with Van Ryn, granting the young prospect UFA status. In what may have felt like a tiny bit of karmic payback for the Shanahan/Stevens case, Van Ryn went on to sign with the Blues, where he began a pro career that was ultimately cut short by injuries.

The Devils and the rest of the league were furious at the ruling, and Holden was fired months later.

THE LINDROS AFFAIR

The case: You knew this one was coming.

In what likely stands as the most famous arbitration case in NHL history, the league had to get an independent ruling to determine whether the Nordiques had traded Eric Lindros to the Flyers or the Rangers in 1992. The situation stemmed from a draft day debacle in which the Nords had made a handshake deal with Philadelphia, only to later accept what they felt was a better offer from the Rangers instead. The Flyers called foul, claiming that they'd had a done deal, while the Nordiques argued that nothing had ever been formally finalized.

The league sent the case to arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi (the great-uncle of future all-star Todd Bertuzzi). The hearing was a bit of a mess, starting off with 20 people crammed into a small room and then dragging on for days amid rumors that others teams had also made deals with Quebec.

The ruling: The hearing ended up taking almost a week, and initial reports speculated that it hadn't gone well for the Flyers. But on June 30, Bertuzzi delivered his ruling: The original trade was valid, and Lindros was headed to Philadelphia. While the decision was viewed as a loss for the Nordiques and Rangers, it worked out for both teams – New York won the Stanley Cup two years later, while the Flyers' package (which included Peter Forsberg) helped the Nordiques go on to win two Cups of their own in Colorado.

Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.

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Down Goes Brown: Five times an arbitrator made NHL history